How has the world reacted to Syria rejoining the Arab League?

There have been warm welcomes and scepticism, but most countries have opted for a muted response.

The Arab League has readmitted Syria after a more than decade-long suspension as President Bashar al-Assad pushes to normalise ties with other Arab nations.

Syria was barred from the organisation in 2011 after a brutal government crackdown on anti-Assad protesters, which led to the country’s war.

Foreign ministers from the 22-nation group voted on Sunday for Syria’s return at a meeting in Cairo ahead of the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia on May 19.

The league also called for resolving the crisis resulting from Syria’s civil war, including the flight of refugees to neighbouring countries and drug smuggling across the region.

Here’s how governments around the world have responded:

UAE: Readmission a ‘positive step’

Some Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, have pressed to end al-Assad’s isolation and welcomed the decision.

Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE’s president, tweeted that Syria’s readmission was “a positive step” and “the UAE believes in the necessity of building bridges and maximising partnerships to ensure regional prosperity and stability”.

Assad UAE
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, bids farewell to Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, in Abu Dhabi [Abdulla Al Neyadi/UAE Presidential Court via Reuters]

Al-Assad visited the UAE in March, weeks after devastating earthquakes struck southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria.

UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan said in a statement on Twitter after the visit that the two “held constructive talks aimed at developing relations between our two countries”.

Qatar accepts reinstatement, not normalisation

Other Arab nations have opposed full normalisation without a political solution to the Syrian conflict and want there to be conditions on Syria’s return.

Qatar had previously opposed Syria’s return to the Arab League. In a statement to the Qatar News Agency, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said the country’s position “on normalisation with the regime had not changed”.

However, the spokesperson also said the country would still support the “Arab consensus and will not be an obstacle to that”.

“The reinstatement of Syria does not mean normalisation of relations between Arab countries and Syria,” Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters in Cairo. “This is a sovereign decision for each country to make.”

Responding to whether al-Assad could participate in Arab League meetings, Aboul Gheit told reporters: “If he wishes because Syria, starting from this evening, is a full member of the Arab League.”

United States says Syria doesn’t merit return

US State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel voiced opposition to Syria’s return to the Arab League.

“We do not believe that Syria merits readmission to the Arab League at this time, and it’s a point that we’ve made clear with all of our partners,” Patel told reporters.

But he added that the US shares common goals with its Arab allies in Syria, including reaching a political solution to the crisis, expanding humanitarian access to all Syrians, reducing Iran’s influence and building stability to ensure that ISIL (ISIS) cannot resurge.

Russia welcomes move

Russia, a key ally of al-Assad, was supportive of the move.

“Moscow welcomes this long-awaited step, the logical result of the process, which has gained momentum, of returning Syria to the ‘Arab family’,” Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.

Jordan looks to curb drug smuggling

Syria’s readmission follows a Jordanian initiative laying out a road map for ending Syria’s conflict, which includes addressing the issues of refugees, missing detainees, drug smuggling and Iranian fighting groups in Syria.

Jordan is both a destination and a main transit route to Gulf countries for captagon, a highly addictive amphetamine produced in Syria, and has hinted it could take unilateral action to curb the multibillion-dollar trade.

A Jordanian official said Syria would need to show it is serious about reaching a political solution because this would be a condition to lobby for the lifting of Western sanctions, a crucial step for funding reconstruction in Syria.

Congratulations from Iran

Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Nasser Kanaani “congratulated the success of Syria in regaining its place and its seat in the Arab League to the government and people of the country”, according to the ministry’s Twitter page.

Saudi Arabia softens stance

Several Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, supported rebel groups fighting government forces in the early years of the war in Syria. However, more recently, the kingdom has shown a desire to soften relations as part of a greater shift in regional diplomacy, including a rapprochement with Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang during their meeting in Beijing, China, April 6, 2023
From left, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Beijing in April as China [File: Saudi Press Agency/Reuters]

Saudi Arabia signed a Chinese-brokered landmark deal with Iran – Syria’s key regional ally – this year, in which they pledged to restore diplomatic ties.

After the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, Saudi state television reported that Riyadh was discussing the possible resumption of consular services between it and Damascus.

Why is this happening now?

The reinstatement of Syria into the Arab League is a significant step in a greater regional geopolitical shift that has seen states make a series of new diplomatic alliances that have challenged the existing regional order.

In recent months, states have acted with increasing independence while new actors, such as China, have entered the fray, challenging the US as the region’s primary powerbroker and pushing through the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal.

The deadly earthquakes on February 6, which rocked parts of war-torn Syria, also accelerated the demand for a softening of ties as the country struggled to receive much-needed aid under existing sanctions.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies